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Going crazy, French style

This year's Le French May films offer a taste of the creativity that marks 1920s Paris, sprinkled with a pinch of the gritty and the surreal, writes Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 3:54pm

Did Woody Allen inspire this year's Le French May cinema programme, entitled "A Touch of Madness: The 20s"? In Midnight in Paris (2011), the American director transports modern viewers back to France in the 1920s. For the cinema component of the Franco cultural fête - which opens on May 3 - a similar journey in time is offered.

The selections include favourites set in the period as well as historical classics made in the 1920s. The "crazy years", as the era after the first world war was called, represented the halcyon days of Parisian cultural and artistic expression. The city exploded with eye-opening liberalism and exciting artistic inspiration, and the buzz attracted writers, painters, musicians and a flamboyant society that jitterbugged and drank champagne 'til dawn - or so Woody would have us believe.

Some of the Le French May films present a slightly less rose-coloured view of this Parisian scene. Dutch director Jan Kounen's Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) suggests the two 20th-century cultural icons had a torrid affair which dovetailed with their personal creativity. It might have been the closing film of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, but it was still overshadowed by another biography, Coco Before Chanel, released months earlier in France.

Still, the Chanel/Stravinsky story is fascinating fiction about artists and their artistic endeavours. If the passions on screen are less an example of joie de vivre than selfish obsession, that's the prerogative of geniuses. And who knew The Rite of Spring would so directly contribute to Chanel No 5?

Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose (2007) offers an even less glamorous side of gay Paris. The biographical drama of singer Edith Piaf, featuring Marion Cotillard's Oscar-winning performance, is also an unflinching portrayal of the city's downtrodden and poor underbelly. The wealth and fame Piaf would later achieve still paled compared to the poverty, begging and abuse she and other characters struggled to endure during the low times. The film is a cold reminder that some of those indulging in Paris at midnight drank not to celebrate but in misery.

Outside the City of Lights, life resembled the mainly provincial existence in Claude Berri's masterful 1986 duology, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring ( Manon des Sources). Two of the most successful and beloved films of modern French cinema, both were nominated for several Cesar awards (the French Oscar) and the all-star cast - including Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu and Yves Montand, with Emmanuelle Beart in a breakout role as Manon in the second work - ensured it was a massive hit.

France's place in the history of cinema is undisputed. The Melies brothers claimed to have invented the form

Set in the Provence countryside, Jean de Florette centres on a greedy landowner who attempts to swindle land belonging to a man born with a hunchback, by blocking up a spring, his only source of water. It's a lush movie, with breathtaking scenery of rolling hills rendered intimate by the grounded and endearing characters.

The sequel, Manon of the Spring, follows the hunchback's beautiful daughter as she seeks revenge on the man and the town that drove her father to his grave. Retribution in this parable comes in the form of a narrative twist worthy of an ancient Greek morality tale.

Vietnam in the 1920s was a French colony. Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Lover is all about the exotic and erotic in Indochina. Based on Saigon-born Marguerite Duras' semi-biographical novel L'Amant (and produced by Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring's Berri), the provocative 1992 film made an international star of Hong Kong's Tony Leung Ka-fai, who garnered attention for his steamy love scenes with Jane March, playing a French teenager who engages in a forbidden tryst with the son of a wealthy Chinese businessman.

Other films in the programme include the late Claude Miller's last work, Thérèse Desqueyroux (2012) which stars Audrey Tautou as a free-spirited woman trying to break free from marital, patriarchal and social convention. Behind the Walls (2008) is a period horror film, in 3-D, starring Laetitia Casta as a writer who finds her idyllic home haunted by spirits. Not On the Lips is an unlikely old-fashioned musical comedy from 2003 by former Left Bank avant-garde director Alain Resnais, whose 1986 romance revolving around two classical musicians in the 1920s, Melo, will also be featured.

For children, Sylvain Chomet's Oscar-nominated animation Les Triplettes de Belleville (listed as Belleville Rendez-vous) paints a zany world of Tour de France cyclists, gangsters and three singing sisters.

Two Tintin animations - Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus - are packed with occidental adventure in the Orient. There is also a documentary, Shanghai, The Roaring 20s, which examines in brief the French influence on the Paris of the East.

Although it is included here, I am not sure Michael Hazanavicus' Academy Award-winning The Artist has the requisite French connection, being set in Hollywood.

However, France's place in the history of cinema is undisputed. The Melies brothers claimed to have invented the form. French output during the 1920s was light years from the American studio approach.

Among the unheralded silent masterpieces from the 1920s that will be screened with live music accompaniment is Ladies' Delight, a 1930 adaptation by Julien Duvivier of Emile Zola's novel Au Bonheur des Dames. The story - a small dress shop's business is threatened by a large new department store when it opens - is remarkably relevant for contemporary Hong Kong.

The landmark surrealist work Un Chien Andalou ( The Andalusian Dog) created by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali is shown in a bill with a pair of Rene Clair shorts, the Dadaist work Between Acts and Paris Asleep. First shown in Paris in 1929, Un Chien Andalou might only be 16 minutes long but the non-linear first film by Buñuel had its limited engagement extended eight months by demand.

Some of its grotesque images - including the infamous eyeball slitting, ants crawling out of a hole in a human hand, and the death head moth - are as disturbing today as when the film made its debut.

Of course, you can't discuss early French cinema without Jean Cocteau and the director is represented here with one of his most surreal early films, The Blood of a Poet from 1930.

thereview@scmp.com

Le French May's "A Touch of Madness: The 20s" and related cinema programmes run from May 3 to May 31. For details, go to bc.cinema.com.hk/filmfestival/FrenchMay2013/home.html and frenchmay.com

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